Sexual Predators and Our Youth Activity

shelba waldronAdvocacy, Featured, Safety and Risk Management

Here’s the elephant in the room. The question, the issue, the problem that none of us like to discuss. How many youth in the marching arts activity have been preyed upon by those who teach within the marching arts?

The answer is simple. We have no idea. We have no national data base of coaches, instructors, designers, or directors. Basically, we really don’t know who is on the football fields and in the gyms around the country. We don’t know where these people have taught or why many of them have left multiple programs in short time frames. We don’t know how good they are and we don’t have a mechanism of safety put in place for the reporting of suspected abuse. The answer we get when this is brought up is the phrase, “liability.” We often are told that it’s up to the local school districts to manage it. I understand this actually. I don’t agree, but I understand. I guess then I wonder why other national organizations have these mechanisms in place. Why did they at least attempt the certification and identification process? As we start the Olympics, USA Gymnastics is on the front line of a scandal that has allowed abusive coaches to move from gym to gym, when USA Gymnastics knew of the abuse. Many will point to this case as to why we as the marching arts should not get into the business of policing the activity for abuse and coach certification. Why are we different? Well, we aren’t different and mark my words, one day we will be on the front lines of this debate as other sports have been, because the more international we go, the more problems we will face and the more media attention we will get. Regardless of the answer, every one of us knows of the stories or even knows the person that preyed upon, got caught or is serving time for preying on the youth that trusted us most. Some of us have been around long enough to know first hand the skeletons of the pageantry closet.

This post is an attempt to address what has not been addressed at the national level in a public forum. It’s the conversations we hear through the internet and text messages that start with,

“Did you hear about such and such?”
“No. What happened.”
“Got caught sexting a girl in the guard.”
“Wow. Eye roll.”

Here are the stats from the U.S. Department of Justice

An estimated 60% of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child but are not family members

It is estimated that one in every five girls and one in every seven boys are sexually abused by the time they reach adulthood

Only 30% of all sexual abuse crimes are reported 

15% of cell-owning teens (12–17) say they have received sexually suggestive nude/semi-nude images of someone they know via text

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Criminal Victimization Survey, in 2012, there were 346,830 reported rapes or sexual assaults of persons 12 years or older.

Youth activities and sports are a breeding ground for sexual predators. For a predator to flourish, they must be able to gain trust of not just the youth victim, but their parents as well. They need access to the youth out of sight of other adults such as “voluntary practices,” locker rooms, travelling, and special events off of school grounds such as after game gatherings. Predators know that most parents can’t attend all events and will use that concept to their advantage. Sound like marching band?? Sound like winter guard?? 

Predators know that when children participate in competitive sports, their most trusted person is the coach. They know that the child seeks to please the coach through their performance. They know they are dealing with many hours together and the emotions run high. They know that the child longs to hear, “Great job today!” With that great job, comes a pat on the back, a hug, a whisper in the ear, a grope, or a fondle. It happens that fast and it’s that easy. However, sexual predators are great at what they do. Chances are they have done it many times before. Predators are patient and methodical. They must first groom the victim, their family, and their community. They know what they are doing. 

So what is grooming?

Grooming is the art of slowly and deliberately gaining the trust of the child and family, so access of future time alone becomes very easy and difficult to monitor.

The whole purpose of grooming is so a coach earns trust. That trust then makes it difficult for the victim to report. If the victim reports, then they are told they will let the team down. The team in turn, blames the victim. When the trust is gained, the victim can believe they are actually in love with the coach. This allows the defense on the side of the predator to say that it was equal consent and although that’s a weak defense and won’t hold up in court in most places, it’s still used. The grooming process can be so sophisticated that the adult parents of the victim or adult parents of other team members can start to believe the coach over the victim, thus leading to victim blaming and victim shaming.

“He’s such a great coach. Everyone loves him. She must be lying.”
“She is an amazing person and coach. This has never happened before.”
“The victim was angry he didn’t get the quarterback position.”
“The victim is provocative and started the relationship.”
“The victim is just as guilty.”

These are actual statements from parents of teams where the coach was ultimately found guilty of predator behavior.

The following steps are used quite often in the grooming process:

1. Target the victim
2. Gain their trust
3. Fill a need (offer a ride home, an ear to listen, money, etc.)
4. Make the relationship sexual
5. Gain control

They most likely will attempt to fill a need before anything else happens. 

“I’m here for you if you ever need to talk about your problems at home.”
“Don’t worry about the money. I’ll take care of it.”

Grooming is a slow process, but it’s extremely effective and often, the staff around the offending coach can see it, if they are willing to admit what it is they are seeing. If you are on the guard or band staff with someone who is grooming, then look for these signs.

1. Are they often talking to the same kids privately?
2. Do they state that they “understand” the problems of the kids, thus isolating the rest of the staff from access and from managing personal issues with the kids?
3. Are they sitting on the bus with the kids or the same kids…alone? 
4. Do they frequently state that they alone make the program what it is?
5. Are you starting to see a divide in the team dynamics for no reason and then the offender decides that “they will handle it?
6. Do you get the creeps when you think that a grown adult enjoys sitting next to, hanging out with, and talking to the kids at shows, after show dinners, and other events more than the adults on staff?
7. Are they finding reasons as to why the rules of the program don’t apply in “this situation?”
“But her mother was going to be an hour late to pick her up. She needed a ride home.”
8. Are they offering to pay for, buy things for, and come up with reasons as to why a certain performer all of a sudden has the money for a particular item?
9. Are they having private meetings with kids without the rest of the staff, insinuating that they alone can manage this issue, because…“it’s a confidentiality thing.

Now be careful here. Any one of these above items in isolation does not mean you are dealing with a predator. It’s the patterns you need to look for. It’s also not o.k. if one of these things occur for you to not bring to the attention of the person committing the act that it looks bad and could harm the kids or program. Their behavior puts you at risk as well. 

In the victims, the predator will often find that the easiest child to abuse, is the one who has family problems, low self-esteem, disengaged parents. You will start to see victims who are often isolating themselves from the team and who knows just a little more about the coach in question than they should. In these victims depression can set in. They may start to miss practice. They may quit the team, but say it’s for personal reasons. Sometimes the victims will drop hints to their teammates. However, make no mistake. Fear drives their behavior. Predators exist in a world of power and control and that power can be intoxicating for the kids and even more so if the coach is successful competitively.

So what can you do? How do you protect the kids, the program, and yourself?

  1. Don’t be alone with the kids behind closed doors without another staff member present. 
  2. Don’t be afraid to have a parent or two at every one of your practices.
  3. During costume fittings, there is no need for you to be in the dressing room. Let them come out fully clothed and make sure all fittings have another adult present, especially if you will be touching the child.
  4. Report suspicious behavior. I don’t care if they are your best friend from high school. A predator needs to be gone and brought to the attention of the authorities as soon as possible. 
  5. Know that if you feel that you cannot go to your direct superior, who is most likely the band director, report anyway. Let the police deal with it from there. This is difficult, but the victim of abuse will spend a lifetime recovering and you might have just saved other children from similar abuse.
  6. Document the behaviors that you find suspicious.
  7. Be vocal and insist that the staff follow the rules of practical boundaries and already set program guidelines.
  8. Don’t text the kids. Don’t text the kids. Don’t text the kids. Don’t text the kids. DON’T TEXT THE KIDS!  Find a different way. Just do. Text messages can go awry very fast and be misinterpreted for its intent.
  9. Find public ways to communicate electronically and make sure the parents know how that communication would take place. Additionally, once that method of communication is chosen, stick with it and make sure all staff follow that method of communication.
  10. If you are going to hire someone, check references. Physically get on the phone and check references. Do your due diligence. In these reference checks, you might want to call a program they marched at, a program they taught, and a professional reference. Put a procedure in place for reference checks and make sure it is used consistently for all hired staff members. Oh…don’t forget to ask for a resume’. 
  11. When hiring a new staff member, ask questions about continuing education. How are they bettering themselves as a coach? Do they have any other certifications? These questions are important as the more CE’s a person has or certifications, means that other governing bodies have engaged this person, which gives them more visibility. Predators don’t want visibility. 
Recently, someone mentioned to me that youth sports have a bad habit of “kicking the can down the road.” What does that mean? It means that we often take this tone of, “As long as they are not here, I don’t care where they are.” So the person never got charged, but they were fired and maybe even investigated. Good.  However, “They are no longer at our program. Our kids are protected.” What about the next group of kids that person works with, because they will work with another organization. The argument exists within the idea that “well we couldn’t prove anything.” Ok. Let’s go with it. So, they were fired at your program. You certainly must have suspected something for that firing to take place. “Well, we just didn’t ask them back.” Well then, shame on you for putting the problem onto some other program to subject another group of kids to predator behavior. This is where HR departments come in handy. Use them if you can. Protect yourself. Protect the kids. Document everything.


So what can we do as a whole? What’s the answer? I’ll tell you this. Youth organizations around the world have been grappling with this and putting safeguards in place for years. The horrific and disgusting situation at Penn State put everyone on alert. Most organizations conduct background screenings. The problem with this however, is that most predators haven’t been caught as of yet, so they won’t show up on the check. It’s still a good start, though. Other organizations such as the National Council of Youth Sports, to which I’m a member, attempt to push out information on how to run a safe youth program. Virtually every national sports organization is a member from USA Cheer to USA Volleyball and just about every sport in between. None of the marching arts are a part of this impressive list of national organizations, but yet they should be. It shows that we as an activity understand that we are a part of a larger world of youth activities. If you go on any national sports websites, most (not all), but most have a portal to their websites just for coaches. USA swimming for example certifies its coaches as members through maintaining a database that says that at a minimum the coaches have been background checked, CPR certified, and have taken a number of courses on safety and coaching techniques. I looked at the Field Hockey national site, which is a sport I know zero about, but could find what it takes to become a certified coach and if my child ever decides to play that sport, I as a parent can find that there are steps coaches have to take to gain certification as an approved coach.

Will this stop the predator behavior? No. What it does do, is show that we care and make it our priority to get these people who prey on the performers out of the activity. The larger problem is our failure to address it nationally as an on going dialog. At the minimum we can put out white papers on the topic. Why don’t we have conferences like every other sport once a year or once ever two years? Regionally? Why? And no…Spin Fest doesn’t count unless it is turned into a half spin and half research based, speaker based, information based environment where coaches, kids, parents, administration, and vendors have an opportunity to present information that impacts the children on the whole from the standpoint of research, statistics, and best practices. 

If at any level you doubt anything I’ve said or feel defensive or challenged, then just Google the phrases, 

“Youth Coach fired for…” 
“Band director charged with…”
“Color Guard instructor charged in case involving…”
“Youth coach caught on tape…”

The list of pages goes on and on and on.

I’ve been training nationally on this topic for years and without a doubt someone always tries debate me. One of the most common arguments lie within the concept of, “How do you know that person isn’t innocent? Aren’t we innocent until proven guilty?” I always answer the same way.

“No you aren’t innocent within the eyes of the press and social media platforms. Do you really want to test this theory while your face or the face of your program lies scrutinized on the front page of your local newspaper?” I then end with this, “Which is more important your friends and colleagues or the child you are responsible for and integrity of your program?” 

If you struggle with this answer, then maybe you should contact the ghost of Joe Paterno and ask him the question.  

For information about how to protect yourself, the Marching Roundtable has released a number of podcasts that discuss boundaries, ethics, and instructor insecurities. There is also a new Mentoring site for those looking to be mentored and soon, will come and ethics course. Knowledge is power and we shouldn’t fear it, nor should we run from it. Making our activity safe is an undertaking, but it’s a necessary undertaking, because it will catch up to us. It always does.